Top Ten Reasons School Counselors Want Students to Read: Social-Emotional Learning Opportunities! by Sarah Scheerger

  • Cultivating Empathy

When we read, we climb into the minds and bodies of our characters. We feel with them and we feel for them. I explain empathy to students as follows: Empathy is the experience of walking in someone else’s shoes and imagining how you might feel if you were in a similar situation. This is different from sympathy, which is feeling sorry for someone else. Cultivating empathy is a way to combat bullying. Reading offers a way to understand another’s behavioral choices through first understanding the underlying feelings and thoughts that propel that behavior.

Books offer a “window,” a chance to peek into someone else’s reality and feel with and for them.


  • Normalization of feelings, and increasing self-understanding

I tell my students that all feelings are okay. Experiencing emotion is part of what makes us human. There is no such thing as a “bad” or “wrong” emotion. Even unpleasant emotions like anger, jealousy, anxiety, and greed are still human emotions.

Emotions can be expressed in a variety of ways. For example, while anger is a normal/human emotion, there are both healthy and unhealthy expressions of anger. Through literature, we experience a range of emotions along with the characters. Tolerating and coping with those emotions builds resilience and self-regulation. Being able to identify and label a wide range of emotional states fosters increased self-expression.


  • Reducing Isolation within an experience. (You are not alone).


In kidlit circles, we call this a “mirror”—a chance to see yourself or your own experience within a character’s life. Watching a character survive and thrive despite challenging situations is empowering.


  • Modeling creates learning opportunities

By reading books, children learn both through both positive and negative examples. The positive examples help foster goal-setting and creative thinking. The negative examples teach cause and effect as well as consequences. Learning through characters may help our students avoid some of their own mistakes.


  • Opening Possibilities and Choice


In books, and for characters, anything is possible. The sky’s the limit. We want our students to reach for the stars. To live in a world where anything is possible, and doubt can’t hold them back. Also, in books characters are often faced with multiple choices and they have to weigh their options.


  • Increasing feelings of self-efficacy

Often child main characters in books wind up solving their own problems (or even save the world). This increases youth empowerment. As we see in real youth of today, they know how to stand up for what they believe in. Anything is possible.

Main characters learn and grow through the course of their story. They often find their voices and figure out what kind of human beings they want to be. Our students are in the process of finding their own identities as well.

  • Healthy Coping Skills


Both reading and writing are excellent coping skills. It’s important for youth to find ways to self-regulate their emotional states and to help themselves feel better when upset. Reading can take us into a meditative, calm state. Opening a book can be a welcome distraction from stress and feelings of loneliness. Writing is an excellent form of self-expression and can help us process and integrate our life experiences.


  • Instillation of Hope / Lack of Permanence / Perspective


The characters in literature go through trials and tribulations that are often temporary states. This brings an understanding of lack of permanence. The idea that “it gets better”. This increases the chances that students can keep their own ups and downs of life in perspective.


By nature, kids are ego-centric. They focus on their own experiences, which are then relative to their own previous experiences. This is partially what makes some things feel like a “big deal”, which in retrospect are not that big of a deal. As we age, life and experience put things in perspective for us all. Students don’t yet have that longevity, so “glitches” feel like catastrophes. Watching literary characters survive hardships and take control of their lives can help give perspective and instill hope in our students.


  • Increase insight and understanding


If we adults could go back in time, we’d all have some weighty advice for our younger selves. Sadly, we mostly have to make our own mistakes to learn. But through literature, we’re essentially living through someone else’s experience in a visceral way. We’re hearing the character’s innermost thoughts. This type of experience can foster insight and understanding in ways that our parents’ lectures cannot.


  • Perspective taking


When reading literature, we not only connect with the main character and see his/her perspective, but we often can understand the motivations of other, more minor characters. This ability to take multiple perspectives is a very important social-emotional skill; it helps with negotiation and problem-solving skills, it cultivates more empathy.


As a school-based counselor, I’ve had the pleasure of walking into classrooms where teachers are incorporating RJ Palacio’s “Wonder” as a stepping stone for empathy, choices, and personal responsibility. These skilled teachers are able to intertwine social-emotional learning opportunities into literature.

Teachers can augment existing social-emotional learning programs through reading and discussion. The opportunities are endless. So. . . read on! Discuss. Self-Reflect. And Repeat.


Sarah Scheerger is a school-based counselor in Southern California, helping students figure out who they are, and who they want to be. Her middle-grade debut, Operation Frog Effect (Penguin Random House) releases in February but is available for pre-order now. Keep an eye out for her new picture book, “Mitzvah Pizza” (Kar-Ben) which launches in April. Both of these new releases offer opportunities for social-emotional learning. In addition to MG and PBs, Sarah also writes YA. To learn more, visit